Into adulthood, sickle cell patients rely on ER

Patients with sickle cell disease rely more on the emergency room as they move from pediatric to adult health care, according to researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

An analysis of Medicaid data of more than 3,200 patients with sickle cell disease shows that emergency room visits tripled from age 15 to age 24. The research is reported Dec. 10 at the American Society of Hematology’s annual meeting in Atlanta.

“There seems to be a breakdown in medical care during the transition from childhood to adulthood,” says hematologist Morey A. Blinder, MD, associate professor of medicine. “Not only emergency department usage, but hospitalizations go up during this time as well.”

One possible explanation for the increased reliance on emergency care, according to Blinder, is the relative lack of adult health care providers with experience caring for sickle cell patients. Similar issues are arising for other pediatric diseases, such as cystic fibrosis and hemophilia, which were previously fatal. Over the past few decades, an increasing number of children and teenagers are living into adulthood with these conditions and there often aren’t enough primary care physicians who can provide care for these adult patients.

Sickle cell disease refers to a number of inherited genetic conditions that cause the normally round, disk-like red blood cells to take on a characteristic “sickle” shape. These malformed red blood cells do not carry oxygen to the body as well as healthy cells and are prone to clogging smaller blood vessels. The condition is often painful in places the cells block blood flow. Some of the more severe complications include blindness, strokes and pneumonia.